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This was the second of two birthday gifts by Vita Sackville-West (in November I reviewed The Edwardians). All Passion Spent is about Lady Slane, the eighty-eight year old recent widow of Lord Slane, former prime minister and former viceroy of India. It’s a short novel, only 169 pages, and covers a year in the old woman’s life. When the novel begins, her husband’s body is still in the house but their children have gathered to begin planning their mother’s future. She acquiesces to their plans for the funeral, and for her to distribute her jewels (which she doesn’t do as they hope) and sell the family home.

But then she quietly announces she is moving to a home in Hampstead which she recalls seeing for rent thirty years earlier. Remarkably, she makes this plan without knowing it is empty once again. Escaping her meddlesome offspring she takes the underground to Hampstead, meets the landlord/owner, Mr. Bucktrout, and makes plans to move in with her maid, Genoux. Baffled but somewhat relieved to have her out of their hair, the family all retreat. And Lady Slane and Genoux, along with their new friends Mr. Bucktrout and his handyman Mr. Gosheron, spend quiet, happy days in Hampstead.

Lady Slane spends time ruminating on her youth, and this is where the story really gets interesting. She had always been an obedient, introspective daughter, never revealing to her parents that she really wished to be an artist. Now she sits in the sun in Hampstead remembering her secret desire, and the way that she was swept into engagement and marriage. It’s interesting that Sackville-West, who defied her own parents wishes that she make a “good” match with a very wealthy man of ancient title and instead married Harold Nicholson, whose family’s title was only as old as Victoria and who had little income, so aptly describes the opposite experience, of a young woman doing what’s expected.

Into this reflective time of Lady Slane’s life, an old acquaintance, Mr. FitzGeorge, who turns out to be a friend of Kay, the son she feels is most like her, comes into her life and becomes her friend, awakening long forgotten emotions and memories. Sackville-West writes, “It disturbed her old-age peacefulness. It revived the perplexities of her youth. It shocked her slightly, and pleased her more than it shocked. It was the very last thing she had ever expected — she whose days were now made up of retrospect and of only one anticipation.”

There are some delicious twists from this point on that I can’t give away. I adored the characters, even the loathsome, squabbling, money-grubbing family members. I loved the descriptions of Lady Slane’s life and homes. The story is charming. And the ending is just right. There’s a scene with a museum director, a police inspector, and Kay towards the end of the book that is funny and dramatic and dark in the excellent way of English literary novels. It’s a book that needs to be filmed (I understand there is an adaptation from 1986, but I can imagine one with Hugh Grant as Kay).

Smart, funny, insightful, an examination of the roles of women in Edwardian society. It was just what I needed after a difficult read.

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One of the joys of cataloging is that I see books as they come in that I might not otherwise notice. Sargent’s Women by Donna Lucey was on one of my carts in the late fall and I was excited to read it. One of my favorite places is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and one of the four women Lucey writes about in this book is Gardner. I started reading Sargent’s Women after visiting the museum last weekend and hearing a docent talk about some of Sargent’s work, including his famous portrait of Gardner.

The three other Sargent portraits Lucey writes about are of Elsie Palmer, Elizabeth Chanler Chapman, and Sally Fairchild, although that chapter is primarily about Sally’s unconventional sister, Lucia Fairchild Fuller. Each woman’s story is interesting in its way. Fuller seemed the most compelling to me, not only because she came to live in New Hampshire near Cornish, where an arts colony thrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but also because she overcame illness and adversity to support her family with her own art (she became a renowned miniaturist ).

If there’s a common thread between these women it’s their status — all were wealthy, although Fuller fell on hard times because her husband was an entitled jerk and neither he nor his family cared to support Fuller and their children. All four women moved in rarified circles, where Sargent worked. Gardner was the only one who really did what she wanted in life, and enjoyed the support of those closest to her for the most part. These families seemed to all be pretty awful to each other, too, and it’s not just a matter of men ruling over women’s lives, although they did that plenty. There were mothers, sisters, and aunts interfering as well.

The four women are interesting to read about, in their way. I would have liked to know more about Sargent himself, although that’s not the point of this book. Sargent’s Women is interesting, and you could dip into a chapter, set it aside, and come back later to read about another woman and her portrait. It’s always intriguing to look at the lives of women mostly forgotten to history, even very privileged women, and to understand a little about the context in which an artist painted. This book, like the paintings of these women, gives us a glimpse into a world most of us can’t imagine.

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A friend whose reading tastes I trust went out of her way earlier this fall to tell me she had a book recommendation for me: The River Why. I had not heard of the book nor its author, David James Duncan, but now that I’ve read it I’m filled with the usual sense I have after “discovering” an author whose writing I admire: regret that it’s taken me this long to find their work and anticipation as I consider reading everything else they’ve written.

It’s hard to say what this novel is about. I was trying to explain it to coworkers when I was less than halfway through and said it was a character driven coming of age novel that is also about fishing, but not really just about fishing but about becoming so adept at something that it becomes not a pastime but a part of your being. Now that I’ve finished I’d add that it’s about being a son, a brother, and a friend. It’s about yearning for solitude but needing community. It’s about getting so focused on something — in the protagonist, Gus’s case, water and fish — that you miss the bigger picture until someone wiser — Gus’s brother, Bill Bob — reveals what’s been right in front of you all along. It’s about realizing there is something yearning in you for something that yearns back towards you, and figuring out those are your soul and what Gus comes to think of as “the Friend.” And it’s about love.

Gus is the child of a snobbish fly fishing legend and and a down to earth bait fisher and as he gets older he grows impatient with both. After a meltdown that results in the destruction of a treasured family trophy, Gus moves out of the family home in Portland, Oregon, renting a cabin to go and live out his dream of fishing more hours than he sleeps. It doesn’t take long for him to realize he’s been deluded by his own ambitions and that the life he thought he wanted to lead isn’t what he really wants. He hikes with his much younger brother Bill Bob, who shows him that the Tamanawis river near his home is shaped like the word “Why” when viewed from above. Then he encounters two very different mysterious strangers (that’s all I’ll say, so as not to reveal too much) one of whom leads him to meet Titus, a friend who initiates him into a world of ideas. He also meets neighbors, and as he examines his own way of being he learns from theirs.

I’m not really doing the book justice. It’s strange — especially if you have no idea, as I didn’t, about fishing.  It’s mysterious and funny, full of wonders like a garbage swilling fish, a singing mouse, and dog who likes rocking in his master’s chair and drinking teat. There are touches of native American, Eastern, and Western mythology, philosophy and religion, bits of poetry, and copious quotations from The Compleat Angler, a fishing tome from the 1600s. It’s about growing up and growing into yourself and yes, it’s about finding God. If you are looking for some substance and wisdom in your fiction, The River Why is for you.

 

 

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I’d read parts of Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer with my student success class last spring in the modules on vocation, specifically the chapter called “Now I Become Myself.” My students were impressed with Palmer’s wisdom in statements such as “What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been!” and “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”

Around the time I used this with my class, a friend told me this is a favorite book of his, so I intended to give it a full reading. I had actually checked it out of the library once before and had been too busy to read it. The same thing happened over the summer. This time I swore I’d read it all the way through and made it my “lunch book” — keeping it at work and reading in the sun or in my office each day after I ate.

How glad I am that I kept trying. Palmer’s wisdom is humble and humane and true. He generously shares his own missteps and fears in the service of helping readers avoid their own, or embrace them as the case may be:  “Here, I think, is another clue to finding true self and vocation: we must withdraw the negative projections we make on people and situations — projections that serve mainly to mask our fears about ourselves — and acknowledge and embrace our own liabilities and limits.” Yep. Ouch. Another gem: ” . . . there is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does — maybe more.” Not something that’s easy to accept.

But this isn’t just a book about seeking one’s vocation. Palmer writes searingly about his descent into depression and his way back to wholeness: “One begins the slow walk back to health by choosing each day things that enliven one’s selfhood and resisting things that do not.” And acknowledges how painful, slow, and difficult this is: “Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection — it deprives one of the relatedness that is the lifeline of every living being.”

He also expounds on leadership: “These leaders possess a gift available to all who take an inner journey: the knowledge that identity does not depend on the role we play or the power it gives us over others. It depends only on the simple fact that we are children of God, valued in and for ourselves.” And extolls the benefits of “inner work . . . like journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendship, meditation, and prayer” and the importance of community: “Community doesn’t just create abundance — community is abundance. If we could learn that equation from the world of nature, the human world might be transformed.”

In these times this passage will be one I return to frequently: “‘Be not afraid’ does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear, and people who embrace the call to leadership often find fear abounding. Instead the words say we do not need to be the fear we have. We do not have to lead from a place of fear, thereby engendering a world in which fear is multiplied.” Amen.

This is a brief book, around 100 pages, and small enough to fit easily in a coat pocket or purse or desk drawer. It merits reading and re-reading, and inwardly digesting. It would be a great book to journal with, or to discuss in a small group.

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The adult formerly known on this blog as Teen the Younger (who will no longer be a teen later this month) suggested we get Furiously Happy: a Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson and both read it. As you can imagine I can’t pass up a suggestion like that even though I have stacks of books waiting for me around here.

As I was reading it I posted on Facebook that the most important takeaway is that people living with depression and/ or anxiety have brains that are lying to them. That resonated with me – honestly there is not a damn thing their loved ones can say when that is happening. The lies are too loud. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell the person you love them and are with the them, you just can’t expect it to make any difference in the moment. That is both disturbing and reassuring.

I still feel that is the most important takeaway. Which makes me glad I read Furiously Happy even though I don’t think it’s necessarily my kind of humor or a topic I want to spend any more head space on than I already do. But it helped put words to some things I’ve been thinking about.

Last week I saw a story on Facebook that had been published in our local paper, about the parents of a recent suicide victim, and about how he was upset about a breakup but otherwise they had no idea and how he’d been talking about things he looked forward to doing and then killed himself. The article and the post both mentioned wanting to help prevent other families from going through this and other people from committing suicide. I get that desire. I really, really do.

But I think assuming that prevention is a matter of just saying the right thing is a lie, too, that people not living with mental illness but near it tell themselves. And it’s just as dangerous as the lies Lawson writes about. We can help people with mental illness know they are not alone. We can help them see there are options in the world, but we can’t help them see themselves in those options — yes, therapy can often give people tools to try to see, and medicine can potentially help thwart some of the lies enough to help therapy work, but ultimately, no one can stop someone else’s brain from lying. I think, and maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me, they can only be a steady presence for the person with mental illness, when their brains are lying or when they are not, and hope the person says they need help shutting out the lies when they get too loud.

In that way Furiously Happy isn’t totally bleak, because Lawson gives people a view into what that’s like, and provides hope for people who read her work thinking they alone feel as horrible as they do. Letting people see her life, Lawson says, led to affirmations that people were with her in her struggle, but also to  “thousands and thousands of people creeping to the edge and quietly admitting, “Me too. I thought it was just me.” It’s something we humans are very good at, especially at this time and place — we have the delusional view that our experience is unique, especially if it’s bad. Lawson helps people through her blog and her books see that other people are suffering but are also living. That’s great. But I think about that young man and his parents in my town, and I am sure, based on the story they told in the paper, that they did that too — let him know he was not alone, and that people had suffered and lived through what he was experiencing. The lies in his brain were too loud, too insistent for him.

And that’s what I hope science will figure out someday — how to keep the brain from ever lying so badly in the first place.

 

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The main characters in Our Souls at Night, Addie Moore and Louis Waters, are neighbors. They both live alone because their spouses died. Neither had a great marriage. Addie decides she doesn’t want to sleep alone anymore and invites Louis to sleep at her house. The town gossips about them. Kent Haruf lived in a small town in Colorado much like the one he writes about in Our Souls at Night. When I read that I realized much of my critique of the book has to go out the window — I found it unbelievable that there is anywhere in America where people, even older people, couldn’t have an adult relationship without whipping up gossip.

So I guess if he was writing about a town much like his own, I have to reconsider my disbelief. It’s a beautiful book, what I’d refer to as a quiet novel, just about these two people’s lives and how they get to know each other well after decades of just knowing each other in passing. They share their experiences, their marriages, the ways their lives didn’t turn out as they hoped or planned, and their concerns for their grown kids and Addie’s grandson. Their lives are ordinary but Haruf makes them seem special somehow, in their ordinariness. In their goodness.

It’s a short read, and if you like character driven novels, it’s a lovely little book. It’s a little sad, so be prepared for that, because it reveals human nature in all its brokenness. But it’s also a little hopeful. And a little funny — he even pokes fun at himself, as Addie and Louis read about a play from “that last book about Holt County,” and Louis scoffs that in the books are “made up,” and “improbable.”  I enjoyed it although I wasn’t really in the right mood for the brokenness.

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Lest you think all of my reading lately has come from The Readers podcast — see my previous post. But yes, this is another that Simon and Thomas discussed and Simon said he hoped to read by the end of the year. Since the plan is that I start an MSc in Science Communication at University of Edinburgh (don’t get excited, it’s a distance learning course) in September, I figure my reading for pleasure year is almost over. Pachinko is a big thick historical novel, so when I saw it on the “recently returned” shelf a few days after I heard that podcast, I thought, “no time like the present.”

Min Jin Lee is about my age and writes in her author note that this novel has been with her for thirty years — she had the idea in college, when she heard a guest speaker talk about Koreans living in Japan more or less stateless  because of WWII and the Korean War. Pachinko was informed by that story, and is the tale of Sunja, daughter of a poor widow who runs a boarding house in Yeongdo near Busan in what is today South Korea. Sunja is beloved, but uneducated. In her innocence and ignorance she is taken advantage of by a wealthy Korean man who lives primarily in Osaka but visits Yeongdo on business. Isak, a well born Korean man who is on his way to be a Presbyterian minister in Osaka, convalesces from tuberculosis at the boarding house and feels moved to help Sunja.

From there the story traces Sunja’s life and that of her family, in particular her two sons Mozasu and Noa, to 1989. It’s about the Koreans who were caught between warring nations, immigrants even if they were born in Japan like Sunja’s children and grandchildren, required to register as aliens even though they have not known any other country. It’s also about women; “A woman’s lot is to suffer,” Yangjin, Sunja’s mother, tells her and we hear that repeated over the decades. Sunja and her sister-in-law Kyunghee must do what their husbands tell them to, and yet when war devastates the family it is these two who support and sustain the family. And it’s about love, especially first love, which impacts several characters, and maternal love, a sacrificial love so strong that Sunja worries it is idolatrous.

Lee suffuses her novel with sensual details — the way cloth feels, the smell and taste of food, the sounds and smells of various neighborhoods, vivid details about the way characters look. All of this drew me further into the stories of the characters’ lives. My only disappointment was that a subplot about some minor characters, Mozasu’s best friend Haruki and his wife Ayame, sort of trailed off with no resolution. Otherwise this was an enjoyable read, and one that took me to a place and time I hadn’t explored before.

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